Class A: Ram Nation Books Return

March 23, 2012

EAST LANSING – The final buzzer sounded before Romulus’ last-gasp 3-point shot reached the rim Friday at the Breslin Center.

As Rockford’s Mark Pearson watched the ball complete its arc, he figured good or not, it wouldn’t take away from the incredible run his unranked Rams made this postseason.

“We’ve worked so hard this year, and to just see that shot go up … all our practices, all our summer stuff we’ve done, and all through the year, it’s all been worth it,” Pearson said. “If it would’ve gone in, we wouldn’t have been satisfied. But by the same token, it (would’ve been) a good year.

“But we’ve got one more now.”

When that final shot caromed off the rim, the Rams celebrated a 62-61 victory and their first championship game berth since winning the Class A title in 2003.

Rockford will face top-ranked Saginaw in the Final at 4 p.m. Saturday. The Eagles, ranked No. 2 at the start of the tournament, finished 22-4.

The Rams (22-5) split the O-K Red title with both Hudsonville and East Kentwood this season, and needed to make some key plays to get to Breslin – especially after trailing Okemos by 10 in Tuesday’s Quarterfinal.

Rockford gave up its most points Friday since opening night – but also scored its second-most this season.

“Maybe people were underestimating them. We were being a little bit too laid back on defense,” Romulus senior Ray Lee said.

And the Rams showed plenty of guts again when it counted in the Semifinal.

After the teams come out of halftime tied, Romulus began breaking away in the third quarter and went up 49-44 with a period to play. The Eagles’ lead stood at six with 5:50 to play. It seemed their time to secure a Finals bid had come.

Not so.

Rockford went on an 11-0 run that included all four of standout junior guard Chad Carlson’s points, plus five of junior Chase Fairfield’s game-high 17. With 1:43 to play, Romulus suddenly found itself down five, 59-54.

 “You hope and you wish and you pray, but making those expectations is tough,” Rockford coach Nick Allen said. “We hoped and wished, and maybe prayed a little bit too.”

Seniors Mitch Caywood and Ivy Johnson would provide a few more answers.

Johnson hit two free throws to give the Rams a 61-57 lead with 1:16 to play, but Romulus knotted the score again with 31 seconds left. Johnson, a 6-foot-6 sub, was fouled again with 7.6 seconds to play.

His first free throws went off the back of the rim. He second fell to give Rockford a 62-61 lead. But Romulus still had hope – until Caywood dashed it a bit by stealing the inbounds pass.

Rockford did miss two more free throws after that. But with only 3.4 seconds left, the Eagles couldn’t set up much more than the final 3-point try.

Johnson and Caywood both finished with 11 points, while senior guard Scott Nikodemski had 12. Junioe Elbert Matthews and senior Aveon Simmons led Romulus with 15 apiece, and Lee added 13.

The Eagles have now made at least the Semifinals in four of the last eight seasons – but Friday’s loss was the latest in a frustrating run. Romulus lost by one point in its 2009 Semifinal and by two in overtime in 2008. The Eagles made the Class A Final in 2005, but lost by three.

“It’s hard to do. I can say that, because we were ranked No. 1 in the state the last two years and didn’t make it here,” Romulus coach Nate Oats said. “So I’m happy we got here this year, but it’s not real satisfying anymore to get here. … I’m a little bit tired of getting here and not getting it done.”

Click for box score or to watch the game and press conferences at

PHOTO: Rockford center Ivy Johnson (44) blocks the path of Romulus senior Aveon Simmons (5) during Friday's Semifinal. (Photo courtesy of Terry McNamara Photography.) 

Championship Experience from Coach's Point of View Unimaginable, Unforgettable

By Dean Holzwarth
Special for

April 4, 2024

WYOMING – As the final buzzer sounded, it was all I could’ve imagined – and more.

West Michigan

In the weeks leading up to March 16 and the Division 4 championship game, I experienced every emotion possible as I envisioned what it would feel like to be an assistant coach on the bench at Michigan State’s Breslin Center as the Wyoming Tri-unity Christian boys basketball team achieved its ultimate goal.

In my first year as the junior varsity coach at Tri-unity, I had been on the varsity bench for a majority of the season, assisting legendary coach Mark Keeler and fellow assistants Brent Voorhees, Bob Przybysz and Mike Kaman.

I was there encouraging, motivating and supporting the varsity team. It was a role I embraced, and had become accustomed to over my almost 30 years coaching high school basketball.

I started coaching in 1995 as Jim Ringold gave me my first opportunity as the freshmen girls coach at Wyoming Kelloggsville High School. I would then coach Kelloggsville’s freshmen boys team for eight seasons, while also coaching the freshmen girls at Grandville High School. I would also coach the junior varsity teams at both schools.

I love coaching. I have a passion for it. I’ve always enjoyed getting the most out of my players while creating a bond between player and coach.

When girls basketball season moved from fall to winter joining the boys in 2007-08, I stayed at Grandville. I spent 21 seasons there before stepping down.

I still wanted to coach, and I heard that the Tri-unity junior varsity position was available. I had always respected and liked Keeler and was excited for the prospect of joining a perennial powerhouse.

I didn’t really know about Tri-unity growing up in the Wyoming Park school district. But as a young kid, I would rush home and eagerly await the afternoon delivery of the Grand Rapids Press. I would quickly find the sports page and read it from front to back, hoping one day to see my byline.

I began writing for the Press’ sports department in 1997. It was my dream job. And that’s also when I first started covering Tri-unity boys basketball.

I remember watching eventual NBA all-star Chris Kaman, along with Bryan Foltice and others play for this little Christian school and have unbridled success under Keeler.

MHSAA Tournament runs became the norm for the Defenders. They won their first Finals title in 1996, and they would claim four more over the next 26 years. They also had six runner-up finishes.

Tri-unity’s assistant coaches, including Holzwarth (second from right), monitor the action.I was sitting on media row writing for in 2022 when Brady Titus led Tri-unity to its fifth state championship.

I never thought that two years later I would be on the coaching staff as the Defenders pursued another one. But there I was.

I knew this year’s team had the potential to be special.

Tri-unity had returned four of its five starters from a year ago, after suffering a heart-breaking two-point loss to Munising in the Division 4 Final.

Eight seniors were on the roster. The team had a mix of talented guard play, senior leadership, size and depth. We had shooters and we played great defense, a trademark of Keeler’s teams.

This was the year, and that heaped lofty expectations on Keeler and the team. It was basically “state championship or bust.” Anything less would be considered a disappointment.

Keeler wanted it badly, and I knew the players did as well. I think they felt the pressure at times of living up to the expectations that had been set.

We had several lopsided wins, but also had a few tough losses to Division 2 and Division 3 teams – Grand Rapids Forest Hills Central, Wyoming Lee, Grandville Covenant Christian and Schoolcraft – all talented teams that I think made us better despite falling short.

As the postseason started, there was anxiety and excitement.

We were one of the favorites, but it wouldn’t be easy. We would have to earn each of the seven victories needed to win it all.

First came a District title, but then we had to play a quality Fowler team in its home gym in the Regional Semifinal. This was a game we knew would be a challenge – and it was.

We led by only one at halftime after a 7-0 run to end the second quarter. The score was tied 33-33 in the fourth quarter before senior Lincoln Eerdmans made a key 3-pointer to spark our victory.

As we went through the handshake line, several Fowler players said, “Good luck in the Finals.”

Our defense played extremely well in the Regional Final and state Quarterfinal to secure our team another trip to the Breslin.

St. Ignace was our opponent in the Semifinal, and we had to face a senior guard who could do it all – Jonny Ingalls. He lived up to the hype. He was good, and we didn’t have any answer for him in the first half. We trailed by one, only to fall behind by seven late in the third quarter.

Was this the end? Were we going to fall one game short of our goal?

Holzwarth and the coaching staff greet Keaton Blanker (4) as he comes off the floor. We were down by five points in the fourth quarter, but junior guard Keaton Blanker, and others, rose to the occasion. We rallied to win a tight one, and now we were one win away from a Division 4 title.

The night before the championship game, we stayed at a hotel in East Lansing as we had the first game of the day at 10 a.m. We had a team dinner, and the players seemed relaxed and eager to close out the season the way they had intended.

There was one thing that worried me. We were playing Mount Pleasant Sacred Heart. A team we had played in the second game of the season and defeated by 30 points.

Would we be overconfident? I had no idea. They were a different team now, but so were we. Anything could happen.

Keeler gave a spirited and emotional pregame speech. In last year’s loss to Munising, he felt like the team played not to lose, and this season his big thing was “I want to win.” He said it to every starter that Saturday morning during the final moments in the locker room before tipoff, asking all five individually to say it back – which they did, the first one quietly but followed by teammates replying louder and louder as everyone got fired up and “I want to win” rang through the locker room. I think it inspired all of us.

After a competitive first quarter, we started to find our rhythm and expanded the lead. We were ahead by double-digits at the half, and a state title was within our grasp. Senior Wesley Kaman buried a 3-pointer in the final seconds of the third quarter to give us a 20-point cushion. It was at that point I knew we were going to win.

All five starters reached double-figure scoring, led by Jordan VanKlompenberg with 19 points and Owen Rosendall with 14. That balance was intentional and a successful sign for our team all season.

The exhilaration of winning was intoxicating. I loved watching the boys celebrate something they had worked so hard to accomplish. I will never forget their faces. I looked to my right from my seat on the bench and watched them running onto the court, just wearing their joy. They were just elated.

I was so happy for Keeler, a devout Christian who is respected by so many people in high school basketball circles. I learned so much from him this season. The way he approaches each game, his competitiveness. He instills his strong faith in his players and understands that the game of basketball is a bridge to a higher purpose.

Keeler is the fourth-winningest coach in state boys basketball history with a record of 694-216, and will be the winningest active coach next winter as all-time leader Roy Johnston retired from Beaverton at the end of this season.

The tournament run was one of the best coaching experiences I have had, and I feel blessed to have had the opportunity to be a part of a state championship season.

Dean HolzwarthDean Holzwarth has covered primarily high school sports for Grand Rapids-based WOOD-TV for five years after serving at the Grand Rapids Press and MLive for 16 years along with shorter stints at the Ionia Sentinel and WZZM. Contact him at [email protected] with story ideas for Allegan, Kent and Ottawa counties. 

PHOTOS (Top) The Wyoming Tri-unity Christian bench, including the author (far right) and head coach Mark Keeler (middle), celebrate a 3-pointer late in the Defenders’ Division 4 championship win over Mount Pleasant Sacred Heart. (Middle) Tri-unity’s assistant coaches, including Holzwarth (second from right), monitor the action. (Below) Holzwarth and the coaching staff greet Keaton Blanker (4) as he comes off the floor. (Photos by Hockey Weekly Action Photos.)